A Path of Violence
by Rusty Priske
Month of the Boar, year 1168
The Crab looked down the hill at the small village. Eddies of snow blew across the cold ground and smoke hung in the air like it was painted there. There were no villagers to be seen as they were all huddled against the encroaching cold.
Hida Sozen never took his eyes from the village as he gave his orders. His orders were exact, leaving little room for interpretation. Rikyu and Nichie gave no response other than affirmation and moved away to prepare their small squads.
When the attack came, not thirty minutes later, the Crab hit the village like a wave. There were only a dozen of them, all told, plus two yoriki that hung back when the fighting started, but the Scorpion had not expected an attack here at this time. The village served no strategic purpose and the onset of winter was not normally the time to start an offensive. The village magistrate fought bravely, but did not fight long. Nichie and Rikyu brought their groups from either side as Sozen took three other samurai right down the middle.
The Scorpion villagers did not stand aside in the face of this assault. They fought back with whatever weapons they had at their disposal. At one point, Sozen found himself facing a group of four, armed with a variety of kitchen implements. They were led by a Samurai wearing no mon or colors. The two groups, samurai and peasant, stood facing each other, as a pause in their running battle allowed Sozen and the ronin to assess each other. "Who are you, who would stand in the way of justice?" Sozen yelled at the stranger.
"I am but a ronin, sir Crab, who found himself in this village. I have enjoyed their hospitality and I am loathe to watch them threatened." Sozen smiled grimly. "Then you shall watch them no longer." He advanced on the ronin quickly, allowing his companions to deal with the villagers, while he dealt with their spokesman. The ronin was a step quicker, however, and avoided the first blow.
"You are used to dealing with ashigaru? You are a step slow." The ronin's taunts reached Sozen's ears but did not faze him. He mounted a second assault, putting a little extra speed on his blow. This time, when the ronin dodged it, he lashed out with a counter blow, which Sozen sidestepped. "Is this justice, Crab? Where you slaughter helpless villagers that have done you no wrong?"
Sozen's eyes darkened. "Do you dare question my intentions here?"
The ronin smirked. "Why not? You are planning to kill me anyway. I do not think one insult will change my fate, one way or another. Besides, you are the only one who heard me and you will be dead in a few moments."
"My day will come, but it is not this day, ronin. You are not my killer."
The ronin laughed. "Maybe it is as you say. Or maybe you will die at the hands of one whose name you do not know." This time it was the ronin who went on the offensive, but Sozen was prepared for the attack. He stepped to the side and dropped down, while slashing at his attacker's legs. The ronin leaped over Sozen's blade, but the Crab expected that and twisted his katana while reversing his sweep. He caught the ronin as he landed. Without giving an extra moment's thought, Sozen turned and continued to his objective.
When there was no one standing against him the survivors of the assault were rounded up and forced to sit in the center of the village to watch the proceedings Sozen smiled. The smile was not one of joy or mania. It was contentment. He swept his arm wide to encompass the village and the rice fields surrounding it.
"Burn it!" he yelled. "Burn it all!"
Month of the Dragon, year 1165
Mirumoto Sozen threw the scroll to the floor. "This is pointless." Togashi Kazuki looked at him impassively. "That is no way to treat wisdom. You have thrown away the collective knowledge of those who followed our lord and kami. What do you think prompts a man to reject wisdom revered by generations of his ancestors?"
Sozen scoffed. "You find symbolism in everything, Kazuki. Even someone bored of studying."
"This is why I was asked to tutor you. It isn't often that a Mirumoto is assigned a Togashi tutor. Our Lord Satsu must see something in you that others do not. When Lord Satsu tells you to study the ways of enlightenment, do you put them aside?"
Sozen sighed. "I would never dream of gainsaying Lord Satsu. I just do not understand why I am here. I am a warrior. I wish to defend our mountains and attack our enemies alongside my brethren. With all due respect, Kazuki-san, I am not a monk and I have no desire to be one."
Kazuki nodded. "I have not been asked to make you one. I was just asked to tutor you. However, do not think that being a warrior and understanding the teachings are mutually exclusive. I am a samurai, just as you are, but I still walk the path and study the teachings." "So I am to try and find enlightenment in these words?"
Kazuki shook his head. "Do not look for enlightenment. Look for inspiration. And do not look for it just in these scrolls. Look for it everywhere. If I can teach you anything in the time we spend together, it will be that." Sozen just shook his head.
Rikyu pulled his cloak tighter around himself, to stave off the chill night air. He watched the final embers of the village glow dully against the cold before returning to his own campfire. Nichie casually prodded the wood in the fire with a stick, causing the flames to jump higher. "Aren't you at least a little bit cold? Rikyu grumbled, as he sat beside her.
Nichie just shrugged. Then she yawned and said, "So, why this village? Did Sozen tell you?"
Rikyu shook his head. "Sozen did not tell me, but I heard rumors. Apparently our orders did not come from Lord Kuon, but from his grandfather."
Nichie's eyes narrowed but Rikyu quickly amended his comment. "With Lord Kuon's agreement, of course. They believe that the Scorpion have been behind certain activities in Crab lands."
Nichie nodded. "The attempts on Lords Kuon and Kisada. Yes, I had heard of those."
"There is no proof, of course. The Scorpion are too sneaky for that. Still, everyone knows who is behind it. So these raids are to remind the Scorpion that we know and that their deeds will not go unpunished."
"So why insignificant villages like this one?"
Rikyu shook his head. "No village is insignificant to the ones who live there. But, attacking places that have no strategic importance gives the Scorpion the opportunity take their deserved punishment and feel no need to retaliate. It also helps our purposes as it makes the peasants feel unprotected. A populace that does not feel sheltered by its clan will not produce as well. It is longer-term thinking. The tactic may not be subtle, but it is effective."
Nichie arched her eyebrow. "Do you think it will work?"
"It is not my place to question the orders of my superiors. Such concerns are above my station. I just follow orders and kill who I am asked to kill, whether it is creatures of the Shadowlands or peasants of the Scorpion."
Nichie smiled. "You are a simple man. Yet, not."
"Where is Sozen, anyway?"
"Off meditating. He always does after a battle."
The Great Carpenter Wall, month of the Horse, year 1167
Hida Sozen's katana bit deeply into the flesh of a goblin. He did not pause to watch the creature fall as he stepped towards the next one. Never turning from his enemies, Sozen was nevertheless aware of Hida Nari to his flank, moving through the crowd of goblins with brutal efficiency. The two Crabs were outnumbered by ten to one. It was far from a fair fight.
"Another glorious victory for the Crab and the empire! Those goblins won't be trying to sneak past the wall again!" Sozen's enthusiasm could be contagious but Nari seemed immune.
"As you say."
"Come now, Nari-san. I have rarely seen someone with your skill in a fight. Do you get no thrill out of seeing your enemies fall? Their death is your victory. What could be greater than that?"
Nari shrugged. "I do my duty."
Sozen goaded her on. "Just your duty? You get no enjoyment out of it?"
Nari looked away. "No." She paused. "Do you ever feel like there should be something more to find out of life? That there should be some deeper purpose?"
"A deeper purpose than serving the clan?"
"I do not mean instead of serving the clan. I just mean that there should be something else. I mean, is this all there is for me? Is violence my only destiny?"
Sozen smirked. "Now you sound like some people I knew in the Dragon. They talked about spiritual awakening and enlightened paths and greater callings and all that. I just found it to be dreadfully boring. There was one monk that I remember well, though. He told me that you can find inspiration in all things. I didn't understand what he meant then, but I do now. Here, look at this plant." Sozen reached down and picked up the remains of a weedy growth that was uprooted during their skirmish.
Nari eyed it. "What of it? It is dead and served no purpose when it was alive. Do you expect me to find inspiration in that?" Sozen shrugged. "Kazuki thought you could. It is just a question of finding out what the inspiration is. If you figure that out, you will have your answers."
Nari shook her head. "It is just a dead weed."
"Yes. Kazuki's meaning was not always clear." Sozen looked at the weed and then casually at the body of a goblin nearby. Its skull was split by a katana, whether Sozen's or Nari's was not clear. Sozen saw the blood and gore pooled around the body and the wide-eyed expression of shock frozen on the wretch's face.
Sozen stared into the eyes of the dead creature. In that moment he saw its entire life, and its death. He saw that its entire existence had brought it to this place, and that its death was simply the next stage of that journey. He saw all possible outcomes of the gobin's life. Each one, from the most tragic to the most glorious, ended in the creature's death. All of the other futures fell away until the goblin lay at Sozen's feet. The inevitable had occurred and the goblin had died here and now.
Sozen looked back at the weed and then back to the goblin. The Crab's eyebrows rose and his mouth opened in surprise. He started to smile.
Sozen walked to the campfire. "Post watches and get some sleep. At first light I will inspect the village to ensure our objective is complete. Then we will march. We have further targets and from the smell on the air, we will get a heavier snowfall tonight. Our travel will be slow going." Rikyu nodded. "Hai, Sozen-san."
"How many villages are we to destroy, Sozen-san?" Nichie asked.
"As many as it takes for the Scorpion to understand that we are serious." Sozen smiled. "Our cause is just, Nichie-san. The Scorpion tried to bring death in their way, but were unsuccessful. We act in our way and we are successful. It is our duty to continue."
"I never questioned our duty, Sozen-san. I just am unaccustomed to forays against such lightly defended targets."
"Remember Nichie, that we fulfill our destinies when our blade completes its task, whether that task was difficult or not."
The woman cocked her head. "Destinies?"
Sozen smiled. "We all have a role in the universe, Nichie-san. This is what I'm not sure my former clan understood. They spent their time trying to discover the secret to enlightenment."
Rikyu shrugged. "A fair enough goal, if there are no more important issues to deal with."
"There are no more important issues than understanding and accepting your place in the universe, Rikyu-san. Where I could not follow the Dragon's path, was that they thought that the search for enlightenment was their purpose it and of itself. From my perspective they were merely a dragon chasing its own tail. If enlightenment is, as I have found, the true understanding of your role, and they say that their purpose is to discover enlightenment, then they say that their purpose is to discover their purpose. How can you get an answer to a question like that?"
"I'm not even sure what the question is."
"Exactly." Sozen nodded. "Understanding the question is crucial if you want to find the answer."
Nichie stared at Sozen blankly while Rikyu laughed softly. "Riddles. You can take the samurai from the Dragon, but you cannot take the Dragon out of the samurai."
Sozen laughed. "I suppose so. I do not think that the Dragon's path is without merit. It just wasn't my path. If great men like Kaiu Sugimoto have taught us anything, it is that the path to enlightenment is not something that can be mapped, as the crossroads are not the same for each person. In fact, I doubt whether it can be the same for any two."
"So," Nichie asked, "what is the question?"
"Don't you understand? I cannot really answer that for you. As far as I know, it is different for everyone. I can tell you what it was for me. The question was, what is your role? What purpose do you serve?' When I realized that, the universe opened up for me."
"How did you find your purpose?"
"I realized that there are certain things that occur in nature and the world around us that cannot change. Things are born. They live. They die. Every living thing has a life to live, from the lowest creature to the Emperor himself. Sometimes it is my job to end life. I use my sword to bring down goblins, or those Scorpion peasants when they stand in the way of our objectives, or whom or whatever I am ordered to kill."
Nichie arched her eyebrow. "You make it seem so simple."
Sozen smiled. "Once I realized my purpose, it was really that simple. The hard question was, why did it take me so long to realize what was so evident?"
Bayushi Paneki sat cross-legged at a table. He picked up a small bowl and deftly plucked a piece of fish from amongst the rice with his chopsticks. "Enter. Do not stand out there if you have something to report."
Shosuro Ohan pushed the shoji screen aside and entered the room, at her champion's order. She slid the screen closed again before bowing deeply and saying, "My apologies, Lord Paneki, but I did not wish to interrupt your meal."
Paneki nodded to the attractive courtier. "I appreciate your courtesy, Ohan-san, but I can eat while I hear your report."
Ohan bowed again. "Of course, Paneki-sama. It seems that some of our southern holdings have been attacked by the Crab." Paneki's eyebrow rose as Ohan continued. "The invading assaults have been by small groups who attack our villages and burn them and their crops, leaving some survivors, but nothing else of value."
Paneki absent-mindedly picked at the rice in his bowl. "What intelligence do we have? Who is commanding these raids?"
"As you are aware, Paneki-sama, we have placed a representative in each of the villages along the Crab border, in order to maintain watch. These samurai pose as ronin, so as to not alert the Crab of our interest."
Paneki nodded. "Yes, of course. I value the Shosuro's discretion in such matters."
Ohan nodded. "While these men have died during the raids, each sent a report with a villager, with as much information as he could gather before the Crab struck. The attackers, of course, thought they were taking the villages by surprise, so did not believe that messages had been sent." Paneki picked at his food and motioned for Ohan to continue.
"Piecing these reports together, we know that the raids are being led by Hida Sozen, but they have been commanded by the returned Great Bear. It seems that the Crab champion's grandfather has made some baseless accusations that we have made attempts on his life, and wishes to strike back at us."
Paneki shook his head. "Whenever something threatens that they cannot understand, some people wish to blame the Scorpion. Such is our destiny. When coming from a man who brought one who openly serves the Dark Lord into the presence of the Emperor, such accusations do not concern us. Thank you, Ohan-san. I appreciate the sacrifice of the Shosuro in the villages."
Ohan bowed. "We do our duty, Lord Paneki."
The Scorpion champion ate another piece of fish as Ohan pulled the screen behind her. As he chewed, he looked thoughtful. Then he smiled.